Left: Nicholas Hilliard, ‘Queen Elizabeth, The Ermine Portrait’ (1585). Hatfield House, London
Listening to Stone
The art of the quest means leaving home; it is the companion of adventure. Questers must be prepared to venture into the unknown, confront difficulties and dangers, and return home with new understandings of themselves and the world. A pilgrimage is, by definition, part trip and part ritual. The impetus for my journey was not nearly as dramatic or danger-wrought as that. It was urged on by a wish to pay homage, and seek the truth about an 18th century woman, whose story remained locked in the back of an antique pocket watch for over two hundred years. xxxxxx
This story began decades ago, long before the power of the Internet became the fingertip tool of the curious and persistent. A beautiful, heavy silver watch had been in my possession since adolescence, sitting in a small wooden box in a bottom drawer. I would occasionally take in out, hefting it and feeling its cool casing in the palm of my hand. Its remaining gold minute-hand was poised and unmoving between ‘8’ and ‘9’ on a white porcelain face: its gears and springs silent; its long history a stubbornly unknowable chain of events that ultimately brought it into my possession. Little did I know that, after all those years, an invitation was sequestered within. Quest, the etymological building block for the word sequester links ‘hidden’ to concepts of adventure and discovery. I was about to embark on a quest—a pilgrimage—of my very own.
My summer journey would soon deliver me to the deep, cool shade of a colonial burial ground, dripping with Spanish moss, redolent with history and intrigue, and a thousand miles from home.
The watch, itself, is a product of 18-early 19th century English craftsmanship. During that period, the streets near London’s wharfs were filled with tradesmen dealing in goods and services for wealth colonial merchants who were exporting goods from America and other parts of the world to be sold and traded there. Quantities of cotton and rice were delivered to the River Thames waterfront, leaving captains and their clientele, who often traveled together, in the market for luxury goods. In its day, a silver watch like this was crafted by two separate guilds: the casing of silver by one, the ‘works’ by another. They were made to be compatible, with the intricate mechanics fitting neatly into the hand-crafted casement. Hallmarks reveal that the case was fashioned by William Mean in 1801, and engraving on the works show it was made by M. Tobias.
Below: London and the River Thames, c. 1800. Shops attracting American merchantmen with their wares would be found along the many small streets leading down to the river.
But, how did this classic piece of English workmanship end up in the United States? Here, the inner casement reveals a clue. While appearing smooth, the back side of the watch is hinged to open, revealing a compartment not unlike many lockets of that period, allowing for a keepsake to be hidden there. Often it would be a lock of hair from a loved one or a deceased child, or a small cameo portrait of a loved one. In this case, however, it was a silver dollar-sized disk of rice paper, bearing a watercolor rendering of a seated female figure, dressed in neo-classical style. Beside her, a cornucopia spills an abundance of fruit into the foreground, while behind her, boxes are stacked near standing masts of a sailing vessel. And while skillfully rendered, it nevertheless has the appearance of school girl training, such as a female child of privilege would receive as a rite-of-passage to womanhood. On the back, a neatly written inscription reads, Illustrated by Miss Hannah Swinton of Charleston, S Carolina. As intriguing as the diminutive artwork is a second enclosure—a small fragment of pink silk, its fragile weave and light-sensitive color still intact!
Having finally discovered this long-hidden cache, my head was swirling with questions as I held these fragile artifacts in my hand: Who was Hannah Swinton? For whom did she make this precious drawing? Why a piece of silk to accompany the work of art? And what events brought this English watch to Charleston?
A bit of on-line research revealed more about the Swinton family, of Charleston. Hannah was one of thirteen children of Susannah (Splatt) Swinton and Hugh Swinton, a well-to-do, second generation rice plantation and slave owner, with family roots going back to South Carolina’s founding as a colony in the early 1700s. The Swinton name is traceable to Scotland, with a family coat of arms dating to the 10th century. So, with the Swinton name linked to English trade, and birth dates on record for both father (1737-1809) and daughter, Hannah (1764-1843), it is possible to construct a reasonable scenario in which the father bought the watch while selling his crop of rice in London, returning with it to Charleston, early in the first decade of the 19th century.
Next question: What were the details of Hannah’s life and who did she prepare the sweet drawing and silk fragment for…father, beau, sibling? These questions lingered in my mind as the person, Hannah Swinton, who once walked the face of the earth, living, thriving, loving (?) became more real to me. I increasingly believed this woman deserved to be recognized—not just recorded for the history books, but memorialized in some more meaningful way. So, it was off to Charleston on a voyage of discovery, hoping to find some other tangible evidence of a person I could never know.
Located within the library of The College of Charleston are the archives of the South Carolina Historical Society. There, I found several files on the Swinton family, including the aforementioned family crest and extensive data on the family tree as they stacked up accolades throughout medieval and Reformation-era English history. I also discovered a rich history of the rice planting tradition that predominated at many of the plantations dotting the marshy ‘lowcountry’ surrounding the city, including the region where Hannah’s grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, would settle, buy large plots of land and establish his offspring (including her father) in the rice trade.
Right: (Typical of that time, Drayton Plantation, left, in mid-19th c. photo, appearing as it might in late 18th c.)
Hannah would have grown up on one of these Georgetown County plantations on the Sampit or Pee Dee Rivers, summering in rented houses in Charleston, away from the heat and insects that plagued the wet plains so suitable for their primary crop. She would have been attended by house slaves; but only she would be free to pursue her interests including, apparently, art. I also learned that Hannah died a spinster at age 79, which confidently addresses my question about who the small painting and pink silk sample was meant for—her father. Hannah would have been well beyond marriageable age in 1801-2 (age 37-38), when the watch was probably purchased and brought home. So, rather than for an evanescent heart throb, she would have likely prepared a small memento for her beloved aging father to carry with him in his remaining years.
Important to my reasons for being in Charleston, I also learned that Hannah was buried in a churchyard within walking distance from where I sat! The Circular Congregational Church is an architectural anomaly in staid Charleston, locked, as the city is, in colonial design’s eternal embrace. Circular Congregational was founded in 1681 as a place of worship for non-Anglican settlers. Because its worshipers did not adhere to the Church of England, they were considered “dissenters” and forbidden to call their building a “church.” It was thus, a “meeting house.” English Congregationalists, French Huguenots and Scottish Presbyterians gathered there, which explains why Hannah—of Scottish birthright—was buried there.
An innovative 1804 circular structure was destroyed in the Civil War and rebuilt in its distinctive form in 1890, using bricks from the original building. This detail lends a distinctive antiquated look to an otherwise Arts and Craft-era edifice. After passing through a set of ornate wrought iron gates, the burial ground, dating back to the earliest days of the city, partially encircles the church. I obtained a map of the cemetery, with the Hannah Swinton tablet clearly marked out by the church secretary. Long anticipating this moment of discovery and revelation, Kathy and I passed among the tombs and intricately-carved head stones, under ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, around brilliant pink crape myrtle, past the gardener’s brick shed and then, a few paces to the left, where my diagram indicated the Swinton family plot would be located.
And finally, after years of speculation, and months of planning, I walked up to the table-style grave of Hannah Swinton. The inscription had long since been eradicated by weather and time, but the spot was unmistakable. Here lay my artist, my devoted child of a father she clearly adored, sister to many, mother to none. Here for all eternity rests the woman who had reached through the centuries with her small gesture of caring and skill to unexpectedly touch the life of a man from some future time she could never envision.
Hannah Swinton had laid down the gauntlet for me more than two-hundred years ago, challenging me to undertake this quest. Her small water color and sample of pink silk—that tiny gesture of love and kindness hidden from the world for all these generations—all served as an invitation to seek her out. In an inexplicable way, I wanted to let her know that I had noticed. I had finally sought out this woman who moved about in the same places I had been witness to, as we walked the timeless streets of Charleston that week in 2015. I had given human dimension to an inanimate, seated figure in the back of my pocket watch. Recognizing that every imaginary portrait is, in fact, a self-portrait, I would have had no doubt of her appearance if we had passed her on Market Street of a Saturday afternoon, so many years ago.
As I rested my hand on her tomb, I spoke the words aloud, “Hannah, I found you.” At that moment, the bells of nearby Saint Philip’s Church pealed in celebration of mid-day, as a summer Carolina zephyr shook the branches above me and the face of the stone under which she lay shimmered with dappled sunlight.
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Richard J. Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor